ROME – Though ambassadors to the Holy See might not be able to engage the Vatican on every issue of interest to their governments, one cause where they all seem to be jumping on the bandwagon is the fight against human trafficking.
Trafficking is a problem in every part of the globe, and it’s a priority for Pope Francis. As such, it serves as a natural point of convergence for ambassadors looking to build bridges with both the Vatican and their counterparts from other nations, with the added bonus that a joint commitment can actually make a difference.
In a show of just how eager ambassadors seem to be to tackle the issue, somewhere between 10-15 diplomats accredited to the Holy See showed up for a Dec. 3 presentation on anti-trafficking efforts in Africa carried out by a global network of religious sisters.
While it’s common for a handful of envoys to show up at Vatican-sponsored events or get-togethers hosted by one another, to see so many at something that wasn’t an official Vatican event was eyebrow-raising.
Ambassadors of Burkina Faso, South Africa, Croatia, Hungary, the United States, Georgia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Australia were just a few who attended the panel outlining the activities of the “Talitha Kum International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons.”
Organized by the embassies of Ireland and the United Kingdom and hosted by the International Union of Superiors General, the event was focused on the work the sisters do in Africa.
Described as a “network of networks,” Talitha Kum is made up of some 22 networks active in more than 60 countries around the world, developing educational programs, victim assistance projects, and rehabilitation initiatives aimed at preventing trafficking, helping victims to break free from their slavery and fostering their reintegration into society after they escape.
In comments to Crux, Italian Sister Gabriella Bottani, coordinator of Talitha Kum international body, said she was pleased to see so many diplomats attend their event, “because collaboration with governments is fundamental.”
“It’s a very important connection, and we have to improve collaboration at this level,” she said, voicing her belief that more and more governments will get involved in anti-trafficking efforts.
Part of the reason for the high-level engagement is because trafficking is such a big priority under the Francis papacy, she said, noting that Talitha Kum has formal involvement with around six or seven embassies to the Holy See, and local partners on the ground engage with others at a national level.
Among those who have formal ties with the organization is the UK embassy to the Holy See, which this year gave some $60,000 to Talitha Kum in support of leadership training and research on trafficking routes in Africa, and they are poised to give the same amount next year.
In her presentation, Bottani, who has travelled extensively in Africa and other nations visiting Talitha Kum networks on the ground, said most countries in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa are either sources of trafficking, places of transit, or destinations for trafficked persons.
Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are the main destination regions of trafficked persons from Sub-Saharan Africa, while the bulk of those trafficked to the region come from southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Thailand.
Among the most common forms of trafficking flagged by sisters who work in the area are forced labor in mines and the fishing industry, and domestic servitude. Sexual exploitation is also highly common, mainly in forced prostitution, with many women, mostly from Nigeria and Burkina Faso, falling prey to traffickers after contacting smugglers who promise to take them to Europe.
Bottani said there are also many groups of people who end up lost in an effort to make their way home after escaping violent, torturous enslavement.
Forced marriage, forced begging and organ removal are other major forms of trafficking seen in the region, she said, stressing the importance of local leaders speaking out and engaging with religious communities.
Around 36 percent of trafficking victims from Sub-Saharan Africa are under 18, making it an issue of child safety as well as a human rights issue.
Sisters representing Talitha Kum, who work with local bishops’ conferences and conferences of religious, serve as part of seven networks in some 10 countries in Africa, Bottani said, yet “it’s not yet enough.” She stressed the importance of empowering local leadership and collaborating with neighboring countries, as well as preventive measures through educational, training and awareness programs.
Flaminia Vola, a representative of the migrants and refugees section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, told attendees that “before being a crime, human trafficking is a serious sin … that allows abuse and damages the dignity of the person.”
“If we really want to end trafficking, culture itself must change,” she said, stressing educating young people about the signs and the risks and engaging the global market with a consistent set of ethics.
Human trafficking is also a pastoral issue for the Church, Vola said, outlining guidelines on welcoming and listening which, she said, are built on the Church’s experience and are meant to be a tool “for dialogue and advocacy.”
Derek Hannon, the newly-arrived Irish ambassador to the Holy See, praised the work of the Talitha Kum and the sisters who work in risky, often dangerous, circumstances to assist victims.
The embassy, he said, “is delighted” to provide them support, including financial assistance, and said “a little bit more attention is warranted” for the problem.
Sally Axworthy, British ambassador to the Holy See, cited several cases of trafficking or slavery in the UK that have shocked locals, including the death some years ago of 21 Chinese workers, who drowned while diving for shellfish at the behest of a gang-master who paid them slave wages and was unaware of tide patterns.
Reports have also come out about car wash employees living in slave-like conditions, yet forced prostitution and domestic servitude are among the highest forms of trafficking in the UK, Axworthy said, noting that some 40.3 million people are enslaved throughout the world.
Speaking of the importance of religious communities, she praised Francis’s interest in human trafficking, saying he is “one of the world leaders who keeps it on the front pages.”
The Catholic Church “is well-placed to respond due to its global networks,” she said, and due to the in-the-trenches knowledge and experience of sisters and pastors who serve in areas where trafficking is a major risk, “the Church is positioned to respond in a way that governments cannot.”